Sharks Move On to Round Two

With a flare for the dramatic, the second seed San Jose Sharks eliminated the seventh seed Los Angeles Kings with a 4-3 OT win in Game Six.  Thanks to a fortunate bounce to the stick of captain Joe  Thornton, the Sharks narrowly avoided a decisive seventh game with their division rival. Moments after the San Jose had killed off an extremely questionable five-minute charging major, an intended pass from Devin Setoguchi to Patrick Marleau caromed to Thornton who simply turned and swatted it home to end the series.

It took longer than many (including myself) predicted, but San Jose’s offensive depth came through in the end to defeat the Kings and move on to the Western Conference Semis.

The Sharks out-shot the Kings 229 to 169, won the face-off battle 55.5% to 44.5%, and simply carried the play throughout the six game duel. San Jose’s scoring depth shined, as 12 skaters finished with three or more points.

Conversely, the Kings had nine skaters with three or more points.

Furthermore, San Jose’s top three scorers in the regular season (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski) combined for 14 points in the series. LA’s top three regular season scorers (Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown) combined for 11 points in the series.

Of course the Kings were without their true top scorer in center Anze Kopitar, but the Sharks’ best players out-performed their healthy counter-parts.

Unfortunately for San Jose, outside of these particular numbers, the details of the game were not in their favor during the series against Los Angeles. As the Sharks move forward in this postseason, there are plenty of concerns that Head Coach Todd McLellan and his staff will certainly need to address.

First and arguably most importantly, the Sharks had numerous defensive lapses in the opening round series with the Kings. San Jose allowed a team (missing their best player mind you) to average 3.33 goals per game in the series, the fifth best mark of all 16 teams in the postseason.

Yet during the regular season the Kings scored just 2.55 goals per game, good enough for just 25th out of all 30 NHL clubs. Make no mistake about it, the Kings’ offense benefited mostly from San Jose mistakes in the series.

In Game Two when the Kings got off to a 2-0 first period lead and went on to win 4-0, the Sharks took two unnecessary offensive zone penalties. L.A. would cash in on both those opportunities to build that 2-0 advantage.

Game Three saw the Kings race out to a 3-0 first period lead due to a number of San Jose blunders. The opening goal scored by Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell was the definition of a “softie” let in by Antti Niemi and on the ensuing faceoff the Kings turned a two-one-one rush into a fluky goal as a total team breakdown by the Sharks saw L. A. score twice within 13 seconds.

In fact, there were five separate occasions when the Kings scored goals within 3:38 of each other as well as five different occasions when the Kings scored a goal within 3:38 after the Sharks had scored.

Preventing goals in the immediate few shifts after a goal has been scored has always seemed to be a problem for the Sharks in recent seasons and against the Kings it was a big issue once again.

Half of L.A.’s goals (10 out of 20) came within 3:38 of another goal. Clearly the Sharks were having difficulty in both shaking off mistakes and calming down from the euphoria of scoring at the other end.

San Jose will face either the Detroit Red Wings or the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round, both of whom have the composure to make the Sharks pay dearly if they continue to struggle in the first few minutes after a goal.

However, poor defensive play isn’t the only issue the Sharks have to address in the next round. They certainly scored enough at even strength to overcome their vast amount of lapses in their own end but their special teams was also a disaster.

One of the main reason’s the Kings took the Sharks a bounce away from a seven game series (other than Jonathan Quick’s brilliance in net) is because they won the special teams battle.

LA’s fourth overall penalty kill during the regular season (85.5%) bested San Jose’s second overall power-play (23.5%) by allowing San Jose just two power-play tallies on 23 chances. In other words the Kings’ penalty kill increased their performance in the postseason to 91.3% while the Sharks power-play plummeted to an abysmal 8.7%.

On the opposite side of things, the Los Angeles power- play (which ranked just 21st in the regular season at 16.1%) increased it’s success rate to 20.8% and San Jose’s abysmal penalty kill (24th in the regular season at 79.6%) remained similarly poor at 79.2%.

During L.A.’s Game Two win the power-play was the difference as the 2-0 first period lead was built on power-play goals by Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson.  Likewise, their penalty kill shut down all four Sharks’ power-plays in their Game 5 victory.

The Sharks cannot afford to continue losing the special teams battle as bad as they did against the Kings. L. A. may have had the 21st ranked regular season power-play but the Blackhawks boast the fourth most potent man advantage with the Red Wings one spot behind them in fifth.

And finally, what should be the biggest concern for San Jose as they move into the next round is the play of netminder Antti Niemi. The Sharks have room to improve defensively and on special teams but no matter the improvements they make, teams like Chicago and Detroit will assuredly get their chances. They will get their goals both at even strength and on the power-play.

The question is how hard will they have to work for those goals? Niemi—who you all know by now was the starting netminder for the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks last season—was pulled twice by Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan during the opening round.

For the series against the Kings, Niemi finished with a paltry 4.00 GAA and a majorly concerning .863 save percentage. Going into Game Six against the Kings, it was highly debated amongst Sharks fans whether or not backup Antero Niittymaki—who had stopped a combined 29 of 30 shots in his two relief appearances—should get the start in net.

McLellan went back with Niemi, the Sharks won the game, won the series and none of L. A.’s three goals in the series finale were egregious mistakes on Niemi’s behalf.

That said, one of Niemi’s biggest weaknesses has always been rebound control and two of the three goals allowed came directly off rebounds off of Niemi’s leg pads onto the stick of the Kings’ scorer.

And while making a goalie change mid-game doesn’t always mean the goaltender is at fault, in each of the games where Niemi was yanked there was at least one goal that was clearly his fault. As mentioned earlier the Mitchell goal in Game Three needs to be stopped and in Game Five, Dustin Penner’s wrist shot is a save Niemi needs to make in that situation.

Both Detroit and Chicago finished in the top four in the league in goals per game during the regular season to go along with their tremendous power-plays so Niemi will have to turn his game around quickly in round two or Niittymaki may have to take over. And if that happens, it may be too much for the Sharks to overcome.

If the Sharks don’t make adjustments and improve in these areas, it might be yet again another early postseason exit for Team Teal.

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